Using Neuroscience to Make Exercising a Habit

Using Neuroscience to Make Exercising a Habit

Exercise prescription is central to the treatment of many problems that present to our clinic. This may include stretches, strength training, cardiovascular exercise and weight loss activities.

In most cases, these will provide a long-term solution to one’s problem…. if consistently done.

Compliance to exercise is one of the biggest barriers to recovery. This is not surprising given that the human brain is hard-wired for reward and it wants that gratification now. Anything less doesn’t motivate a change in behaviour. In other words, if your exercise program doesn’t make you more flexible, stronger, fitter or lighter very soon, then you are not likely to stick with it very long. Unfortunately, our bodies take a little while to change in response to exercise, so many quit before the rewards are achieved.

Developing a new habit is a bit like placing a grain of sand on the positive side of a balance scale. One grain doesn’t bring change, but if you add another, then another, then another, then the scale will eventually hit a tipping point and noticeable change suddenly appears. When this occurs, the weight of your process makes it easier to stick with the habit than to not.

From this, we can see that the short-term goal is not so much to be more flexible, stronger, fitter or lighter. Rather it is to develop the habit that will eventually bring about that change. So how do we do this?

The neuroscience around habits makes fascinating reading. You can quite literally change your life, once you learn what a habit is, why they exist and how the brain makes them. One of my favourite authors on the subject is James Clear. He has written a very practical guide to how to form good habits (and do away with bad ones) in his book titled “Atomic Habits”. It is a great self-help book and I highly recommend it. Now let us apply some of James’ advice to creating an exercise habit:

  • Make it OBVIOUS – Set up environmental cues to do the exercise. For example: Put a copy of your exercises near the kettle, so you remember to do your stretches whilst waiting for it to boil each morning. Likewise, you could place your fit ball on your favourite chair, so you are readily prompted to do your exercises.
  • Make it ATTRACTIVE – There must be the expectation of a reward. To do this, combine an activity you need to do, with an activity you want to do. For example Every day you may want to read your book, so the habit becomes – after I pull out my book, I will do my exercises, then I will read my book. Eventually, reading gets associated with doing your exercises.
  • Make it EASY – We are hard-wired to perform actions that reap the most benefit, with the least effort. In other words, we are motivated to do exercises when they are easy. For example, the thought of doing 10 new exercises isn’t very entertaining, but by starting with just the 2 most beneficial ones, you will be much more likely to do them. Likewise, a 5-minute walk is much less a barrier to walking than a 30 minute one. After a while, you’ll be in the habit of doing it and say ‘well I’m doing my exercises/walk so it won’t hurt to do a bit more whilst I’m at it’
  • Make it SATISFYING – We are more likely to repeat a behaviour when it is pleasurable. Moreover, we seek gratification immediately and not sometime in the future. This is the problem with exercising because the positive health benefits are delayed. Hence, we need to keep short term rewards coming, whilst the more important delayed rewards develop in the background. In regards to exercise, it therefore needs to be enjoyable. For example, listening to your favourite music when doing your exercises.

The physiotherapists, exercise physiologists and podiatrists at 4 Life Physiotherapy will be able to prescribe the most beneficial and appropriate exercises to help you achieve your health goals. However, consistency is the key to long term success. So be sure to ask yourself, how can I make my exercises obvious, attractive, easy and satisfying.

Craig Cheney

Physiotherapist & Podiatrist



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